SURVIVING AND THRIVING IN THE KITCHEN: THE CHALLENGES OF HAVING TWO X-CHROMOSOMES IN AN X-RATED WORKPLACE
Tessa Huibers’ first job in a restaurant was as a busser. She remembers going into the kitchen with dirty dishes and being intimidated by the loud, rude and aggressive chatter coming from the line. The cooks—all male—were brazen and crude. They would make distasteful jokes and find any excuse to badger the wait staff. Huibers only entered their domain when absolutely necessary. “I was so shy,” she laughed. “I was terrified of the kitchen.”
It’s not an uncommon story for people breaking into the industry, especially females. Kitchen culture has a undeniably chauvinistic bent and Jasper restaurants are no exception. Drug and alcohol use is prolific and the pressure to perform to the highest level means there’s no shortage of criticism—constructive or not—being bandied about. Combine that atmosphere with perennial staff shortages, inflated egos and high turnover, throw in a bunch of dangerous implements like knives and hot burners, crank up the thermostat to 35 degrees and you’ve got a recipe for workplace sadism that no sane young person—particularly young women—should reasonably ever want to be a part of.
Except that some do.
Kami Cochrane is one such outlier. On September 12, the executive chef at Beckers’ Gourmet Restaurant was getting ready for another dinner hour slam in the dining room with arguably the best view in the Rockies. Not that she’s ever gazing out at the Athabasca River during service. Instead, Cochrane is calling out orders, grilling meat and assembling plates for more than 100 guests in less than four hours. Even while pulling 12 hour shifts in the thick of Jasper’s summer rush, however, Cochrane is able to reflect on how far she’s come in her cooking career.
“I literally think I have my dream job right now,” she said.
Six years ago, not so much. Cochrane was working in Windsor, Ontario, cooking at a unionized casino-restaurant. She’d achieved her Red Seal accreditation as a chef and as a pastry chef, had cooked at several prestigious Fairmont properties, and was recruited to help open Caesars Entertainment’s first international location. However, her heart longed for Jasper, where she’d worked for one summer in 2002. When a chance meeting with another former Jasper cook tipped her off that Beckers was looking to fill an executive chef position, she jumped at the opportunity.
“I love being in Jasper, I love the size of this restaurant and I have a great relationship with the owners,” she said.
Still, there are challenges. Cochrane’s seen first hand the damage that too much partying can inflict on individuals—and the team. She’s had to fire her fair share of cooks that couldn’t hold it together. For the sole reason that being female takes the heat off, in terms of social pressure to imbibe, Cochrane is glad she’s the odd-woman out.
“Being female, you don’t get sucked into it as much as males,” she said. “I take pride knowing I come to work everyday with a clear head.”
Patricia Page can relate. The Australian expat might have an occasional glass of wine after shift, but in general the only sauce she touches is some kind of reduction or dessert topping. Page, who works both at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge in pastries and at Syrahs of Jasper as a cook, learned long ago that for her, boozing and cooking at a high level don’t mix. She ran the gauntlet of egos, cranky chefs and sexist jokes while apprenticing in Australia (it’s worse there than here in Canada, she claims) and feels proud that she made it through. A big part of that, she said, was gaining her confidence, something that would have been compromised had she been indulging in alcohol.
She said eventually—after months of getting screamed at and having improperly poached eggs thrown at her—she learned not only how to be a better cook, but how to stick up for herself.
“I learned how to give it back,” she said. “And now I can poach the perfect egg.”
At The Raven Bistro, a server brings out the restaurant’s piece de resistance from the brunch menu, a Huibers-designed eggs Benedict, replete with house-made chorizo sausage, Harissa-flavoured hollandaise sauce and two expertly poached eggs, their delicate yolks trembling and shrouded by the thin whites. Huibers not only poached the eggs, but created the entire brunch menu, a step that indicates the creative freedom that head chef John Riedler has afforded her. If Huibers is honest, she’ll tell you that one day she hopes to succeed her mentor and run the kitchen herself.
“I can see myself taking over the Raven,” she smiles.
Not so long ago, she could hardly see herself in the industry at all. Huibers first learned to love cooking in high school (“shout out to Mrs. Jones!”) and enjoyed culinary college, but her first job was for a huge hotel, and she hated it. She was one of dozens of hirelings relegated to the basement, pumping out banquet items with no room for inventiveness. The attitudes she encountered were even more off-putting: jealousy, competitiveness and overall unhappiness, which translated into bitterness, a taste she couldn’t stomach. She quit, cooled her heels for a year and then fortunately—for her and her diners—when Riedler opened the Raven in 2012, gave the industry another shot. She put her resume in and hasn’t looked back.
“I love the fusion of classic cooking and new ideas,” she says about her workplace.
Once a place to avoid, the professional kitchen is now Huibers’ home. Like Cochrane and Page, getting to this point in her career hasn’t been easy, but has made her who she is. When each of the women reflect on where they’ve been—whether as a cook-hating busgirl, a powerless cog in a huge union-run casino or a rookie line cook getting berated for ruining eggs—they all feel lucky to have found their passion.
“My main focus is my job,” Hubiers said. “It’s what I love to do.”
They also each feel strongly that the key to getting to where they are now was through persistence and staying true to their selves.
“If you want to do this job you have to stick through it,” Page says. “You’re going to have bad days, but those bad days are going to make you stronger.”
“You’ve got to have confidence,” Cochrane says. “And that comes from working hard.”